Houses of Cluniac nuns: Priory of Arthington

A History of the County of York: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1974.

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'Houses of Cluniac nuns: Priory of Arthington', in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974) pp. 187-190. British History Online [accessed 29 February 2024]

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The priory of Arthington, the only house of Cluniac nuns in the county, (fn. 1) was founded by Peter de Arthington, either at the end of the reign of Stephen, or at the beginning of that of Henry II, as appears from an award made about Michaelmas, 26 Henry VI (1447), in a dispute between John Arthington and the prioress and convent. (fn. 2) Peter de Arthington gave the nuns 'the place the whilk the said abby is byggyd on, with all the appurtenaunces.' Peter de Arthington's son, Serlo, confirmed and added to his father's gift. Serlo de Arthington's son, another Peter, again confirmed the gifts of his father and grandfather, and added 'one acre of land in Tebecroft, and allso all the watyre that thai may lede to make yam a milne with, and to thair other usez necessarez.'

Alice de Romeli gave a moiety of 'Helthwait,' and pannage for forty hogs in her wood of Swinden, and common of pasture for the nuns' cattle in the same wood. (fn. 3) These latter gifts were confirmed by Warin Fitz Gerald, (fn. 4) the king's chamberlain, and William de Curcy, (fn. 5) her son, the king's steward, subject to the condition that each of them, and their heirs, should have the right to nominate a nun in the house of Arthington. There is a grant by Edward I, dated 6 December 1306, (fn. 6) to Master Andrew de Tange (for the time it remained in the king's hands, by reason of the minority of Robert, the son and heir of Warin de Insula) of the right of presenting a girl as a nun of Arthington, a vacancy having occurred there by the death of a nun who was last placed there by the ancestors of the said Robert.

The church of Maltby, near Doncaster, was given to Arthington, and formally appropriated to it by Archbishop Alexander Nevill in 1377-8. (fn. 7) The nunnery also received other grants of land in the neighbourhood, which are enumerated by Burton in his account of the house, (fn. 8) but it was always a small house.

A commission was issued on 20 July 1286, (fn. 9) by Archbishop Romanus, to R. de Pickering, H. Sampson, and R. de la Ford, to visit the house, and this was followed by a letter from the archbishop to the nuns, stating that the visitation had revealed their condition to be so poor and depressed that the income of the house scarcely sufficed for their maintenance. He enjoined them therefore, in virtue of their obedience, not to alienate any land without his special licence. Seven years later (perhaps matters had not improved) the same archbishop, on 16 June 1293, (fn. 10) appointed Adam de Potrington, rector of Kippax, curator and guardian of the temporalities and spiritualities of the nuns of Arthington. On 20 January 1299-1300 (fn. 11) the chapter (sede vacante) granted licence to the sub-prioress and convent to elect a successor to Maud de Kesewik, deceased, and on 27 February (fn. 12) directed William de Yafford, chaplain, to 'superintend' all the movable goods belonging to the monastery of Arthington at the time of the death of Maud de Kesewik.

In 1303 (fn. 13) Archbishop Corbridge wrote to the Dean of Pontefract regarding the miserable condition of Custance de Daneport of Pontefract, who some time previously, deceived by the blandishments of the world, had left her house of Arthington, in which for many years she had been a nun, and had apostatized. She was to be received back and undergo the proper penance prescribed by their rule.

On 9 June 1307 (fn. 14) a visitation of Arthington was held, and Archbishop Greenfield at once wrote to the prioress and convent concerning four of the nuns, two of whom, Dionisia de Heuensdale and Ellen de Castleford, were (pending the issue of general injunctions resulting from the visitation) forbidden to go outside the convent precincts. Two others, Agnes de Screvyn (who had resigned being prioress in 1303) and Isabella Couvel, appear to have asserted that certain animals and goods belonging to the monastery were their private property. These they were to be monished to resign wirhin three days to lawful and honest uses, according; to the judgement of the prioress.

There must have been discontent in the house rather later, as on 13 March 1311-12 (fn. 15) the sub-prioress and convent were ordered to render due obedience to Isabella de Berghby, their prioress, who had been placed in charge of the house, and Isabella Gouvel was joined with her in the care of the conventual property. This was followed on 30 August (fn. 16) by a letter to Mr. Walter de Bebiry, Dean of Ainsty, directing him to go to Arthington and inquire as to Isabella de Berghby and Margaret de Tang, nuns of the house, who had left it. He was to find out with whom they had gone, and where they were living. It is clear that Isabella de Berghby had resented having another nun associated with her in the management of the affairs of the nunnery, and had cast off her habit and gone abroad into the world. As to her companion nun, who seems to have been a less worthy person, we hear more afterwards. Although Isabella de Berghby had gone off in this fashion, she does not seem to have formally quitted the post of prioress; and no successor seems to have been elected or appointed till she took steps to return. On 19 September 1312 (fn. 17) (eighteen months after her departure) Maud de Batheley, a nun of the house, was confirmed in office, and four days later the archbishop wrote to the new prioress and her convent that Isabella de Berghby had come to him in the spirit of humility, and he had absolved her from the sentence of the greater excommunication which she had incurred by leaving her house, and that he sent her to them. They were to receive her back, but she was to take the last place in quire, cloister, dormitory, and refectory, and was not to go outside the cloister. The archbishop also imposed a penance on Margaret de Tang. On 18 September 1315 (fn. 18) Archbishop Greenfield visited Arthington, and issued a series of injunctions to the nuns. An account of all the goods of the house was to be made up by all the officers every year before the feast of St. Andrew, and shown to the prioress and three or four of the more discreet nuns. The sick were to be properly tended in the infirmary according to their needs, and as the means of the house allowed; silence was to be duly kept, and all who could were to be present at the services. The archbishop further enjoined that no woman who was received as a sister of the house should be allowed to accept or wear the black veil. (fn. 19) The prioress and sub-prioress were not to allow boys or any secular persons to sleep in the dormitory. In future, when the prioress or sub-prioress allowed any of the nuns to visit their parents or friends, a limit of fifteen days was to be fixed for them to return in. If they did not return then, or if they were late, without a legitimate cause, they were to be punished in chapter. Leave to go out was only to be granted once or twice in the year.

In 1318 (fn. 20) Archbishop Melton held a visitation of Arthington, and issued a long series of injunctions, many of which were repetitions of those of his predecessor. He exhorted that unity and true concord, without which there is no true religion, should be nurtured, and that no quarrels should prevail among the nuns. There are the usual directions as to the due performance of divine service, and the proper observance of silence. All the nuns were to be assiduous in their attendance at divine service, and those who were remiss in this were to be punished by the prioress and sub-prioress, and if that did not suffice, their names were to be sent to the archbishop, and he would see that they were so chastised that the punishment of one should be a warning to the other nuns. The sick were to be duly tended, &c., and no outside secular persons whosoever were to be allowed to frequent the cloister, infirmary, or other private place. As the archbishop found the house burdened with various debts he enjoined all possible economy. The old consuetudines of the house were to be kept, and the dormitory, refectory, and other buildings, which were defective in. their roofs, were to be repaired without delay. The then prioress, and all her successors, were enjoined that in sales of wool, and all other important business matters, the convent, or at least the greater and wiser portion, should be consulted. A carucate of land at 'Burghdon,' belonging to the house, was to be cultivated and sown, if it were unanimously found that this would benefit the nunnery.

The prioress, and three or four more mature and discreet nuns, were to have an account of all the goods drawn up, showing also the debts and credit of the house, and the corrodies, pensions, and other obligations in full, under the convent seal, for the archbishop. The injunction as to the non-use of the black veil by the lay sisters was repeated, as well as the direction that boys and secular persons were not to sleep in the dormitory with the nuns. The prioress and sub-prioress were to eat with the nuns in the refectory. The directions of Archbishop Greenfield as to visiting friends were repeated, with the addition that each nun to whom such leave was given was to have another nun of good report with her. The prioress was to keep convent in quire, cloister, refectory, and dormitory, unless lawfully hindered, and under pain of deposition she was ordered not to grant corrodies, pensions, or liveries, or lease for undue length of time any manors or granges, and further was to make no alienation of the immovable goods of the house, nor to take any nun, sister, or conversus, or to have any secular women as boarders, without the archbishop's special licence. These salutary regulations were to be read at least once a month in chapter distinctly in lingua materna.

In 1319 (fn. 21) we hear again of Margaret de Tang who in 1312 had left the house with the prioress, Isabella de Berghby. On 7 April Archbishop Melton sent her to Nunkeeling to undergo penance for her 'demerits' at Arthington. Her penance was the usual type prescribed for immorality: she was to fast on certain days, be last in quire, &c., and receive the usual disciplines. Again in 1321 (fn. 22) she was in trouble, and it seems probable that if she ever reached Nunkeeling she had again broken loose and apostatized, for on 5 May the archbishop wrote to the Prioress and convent of Arthington about her. He says that, forgetful of her habit and vow taken in their house, she had apostatized, and committed grave arid serious excesses, contrary to the honesty of religion. He had, however, absolved her, and sent her back to Arthington to perform her appointed penance. The prioress and convent were to put her in some secure place, and the access of secular persons to her was forbidden. She was to say the whole of the service as a nun, and two nocturns of the psalter, and if her case needed it she was to be bound by the foot with a shackle (ad modum compedis), but without hurting her limbs or body. When the prioress was assured of her contrition, the prioress was to inform the archbishop. Afterwards, when restored to the convent, she was to be the last in church and refectory, and was not to enter the chapter to hear the secrets, but every day was to receive a discipline, and a beating (fustigationem) up to the cloister, all secular persons being excluded. The prioress was also to inform the archbishop how Margaret behaved from the day of her return. Next year (fn. 23) the archbishop appointed the Prior of Bolton to supervise the state of the house, and on 22 February 1327, (fn. 24) with consent of the prioress, appointed Robert de Tang custos of the house.

The next information about Arthington in the Registers is that in 1349 (fn. 25) Isabella de Berughby, a nun of the house, was elected prioress. She was, no doubt, the prioress, Isabella de Berghby, who apostatized in 1312. If she was, for instance, thirty years old in 1312 (and the appointment of Isabella Couvel to assist her in the care of the conventual property may have been due to her youth and inexperience), she would only have been sixty-seven in 1349. It may be assumed therefore that in spite of her misbehaviour in the interval this was her second term of office.

In the Register of Archbishop G. Nevili a very curious error occurs regarding the election on 19 August 1475 (fn. 26) of Katherine Willesthorp as prioress. Both in the margin and in the text, including the prioress's vow of obedience, the priory is spoken of as that of 'Arneclyff,' a name which cannot ever have belonged to it, and the mistake must be a clerical error, curiously consistent throughout. On 17 May 1492 (fn. 27) Elizabeth Popeley was confirmed in office as prioress, and little more than two years afterwards, on 26 August 1494, (fn. 28) she was deprived for incontinence and having given birth to a child, and for wasting the goods of the house. Owing to her contumacy and disobedience she was deprived of a vote in the election of her successor, Margaret Turton.

At the time of the Suppression (fn. 29) there were nine nuns in the house, including the prioress, Elizabeth Hall, aged forty-five, and against each name, except that of the prioress, is written 'continue,' meaning that they desired to continue in their vows, and there is a note, 'All these persons (including the prioress) be of good religious liffying and not slanderid.' Their ages ranged from seventy-two to twenty-five years. The list is headed 'Domus monialium Arthyngton clunienc' ordinis S[anct]i Benedicti.'

The house was surrendered by Elizabeth Hall, the prioress, and the convent on 26 November 1540. (fn. 30) The clear annual value, according to the Valor Ecclesiasticus, was only £11 8s. 4d., (fn. 31) and at the date of the surrender (fn. 32) the demesne lands were valued at £5 8s. 4d., the site of the priory, with its storehouses, orchards, gardens, and other things within the precincts, being only valued at 5s. a year.

Drs. Layton and Legh reported (fn. 33) that the nuns had the Girdle of the Blessed Mary, as was believed.

In 1543 the site was granted to Archbishop Cranmer. (fn. 34)

Prioresses of Arthington

Sara, 1241 (fn. 35)

Eleanor, mentioned 1299 (fn. 36)

Maud de Kesewik, died 1299 (fn. 37)

Agnes de Skrevin, succeeded 1299, (fn. 38) resigned 1302 (fn. 39)

Agnes de Pontefract, succeeded 1302 (fn. 40)

Isabella de Berghby, 1311 (fn. 41)

Maud de Batheley, confirmed 1312 (fn. 42)

Isabella Dautry, died 1349 (fn. 43)

Isabella de Berughby (second time?), elected 1349 (fn. 44)

Isabel de Eccope, occurs 1413 to 1420 (fn. 45)

Sibil Plesyngton, occurs 1437 (fn. 46)

Alice Raucestre, died 1463 (fn. 47)

Marjorie Craven, elected 1463 (fn. 48)

Katherine Willesthorp, confirmed 1475, (fn. 49) died 1484 (fn. 50)

Alice Mawde (sacrista), appointed per lapsum 1484, (fn. 51) died 1492 (fn. 52)

Elizabeth Popeley, confirmed 1492, (fn. 53) deprived 1494 (fn. 54)

Margaret Turton, elected 1494, (fn. 55) died 1496 (fn. 56)

Alice Hall, elected 1496 (fn. 57)

Elizabeth Hall, elected 1532 (fn. 58)


  • 1. It is included among the Benedictine houses in the Monasticon (vol. iv, 518), and Mr. Baildon (Mon. Notes, i, 3) heads the list of prioresses 'Benedictine Nuns.' But the Archiepiscopal Registers constantly, with few exceptions, allude to it as of the Cluniac Order, as does the list of nuns in the Suppression Papers at the Record Office (vol. ii, 227).
  • 2. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 518.
  • 3. Ibid. 519.
  • 4. Ibid. 520, no. ii.
  • 5. Ibid. no. iii.
  • 6. Pat. 35 Edw. I, m. 42.
  • 7. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 519.
  • 8. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 88
  • 9. York Archiepis. Reg. Romanus, fol. 27.
  • 10. Ibid. fol. 42b.
  • 11. Ibid. sed. vac. fol. 27.
  • 12. Ibid. fol. 27b.
  • 13. Ibid. Corbridge, fol. 19b
  • 14. Ibid. Greenfield, fol. 63b.
  • 15. Ibid. ii, fol. 55b.
  • 16. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, ii, fol. 57.
  • 17. Ibid. fol. 57b.
  • 18. Ibid. fol. 58b.
  • 19. The archbishop had, in 1311-12, issued a general order that nuns only and not sisters were to use the black veil in his diocese (ibid. fol. 24.). The disuse of the black veil was often part of the penance imposed on nuns guilty of serious offences.
  • 20. York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, fol. 132.
  • 21. York Archiepis. Reg. Melton fol. 276.
  • 22. Ibid. fol. 146.
  • 23. Ibid. fol. 153b.
  • 24. Ibid. fol. 172b.
  • 25. Ibid. Zouch, fol. 37. The Monasticon (iv, 519) and other lists give the name here as 'Beningley,' but in Zouch's Register the spelling is quite clearly 'Berughby.'
  • 26. York Archiepis. Reg. G. Nevili, fol. 172b. The vow of obedience is as follows: 'In Dei nomine. Amen. I dame Kateryn Willesthorpe Prioresse chossen of the house of Arneclyff swere and faithfully promyttis obedience vnto my most Reu'nt fader in God George be the mercy of God Tharchebisshop of York, prymate of England and legate off the courte of Rome and to all his successors lawfully enteryng and too all ye officers and mynistres in all maner of commaundmentes. So God help and thies holy Euangelistez.' Ibid. fol. 172b.
  • 27. Ibid. Rotherham i, fol. 78b.
  • 28. Ibid. fol. 82.
  • 29. P.R.O. Suppression P. ii, 227.
  • 30. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 519.
  • 31. Valor Eccl. v, 16. There was a chantry founded in the conventual church by Richard de Clifford dominus de Westmorland, valued at £6 annually, and then held by Parcival Wharton, chaplain.
  • 32. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 522, no. x.
  • 33. L. and P. Hen. VIII, x, 363.
  • 34. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iv, 519.
  • 35. Dep. Keeper's Rep. xxxvi, App. 182.
  • 36. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 3.
  • 37. York Archiepis. Reg. sed. vac. p.m. H. Newark, fol. 27.
  • 38. Ibid.
  • 39. Ibid. Corbridge, fol. 15b.
  • 40. Ibid.
  • 41. Ibid. Greenfield, ii, fol. 55b.
  • 42. Ibid. fol. 57b.
  • 43. Ibid.; Zouch, fol. 37.
  • 44. Ibid.
  • 45. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 3.
  • 46. Baildon's MS. Notes.
  • 47. York Archiepis. Reg. W. Booth, fol. 26.
  • 48. Ibid.
  • 49. Ibid. G. Nevill, fol. 172b.
  • 50. Ibid. Rotherham, i, fol. 13b.
  • 51. Ibid. fol. 119.
  • 52. Ibid. 78b.
  • 53. Ibid.
  • 54. Ibid. fol. 82.
  • 55. Ibid.
  • 56. Ibid. fol. 92.
  • 57. Ibid.
  • 58. Ibid. Lee, fol. 2b.